If the Tooth Hurts…

photo credit: deviantart.com

photo credit: deviantart.com

On our last day in Panama as we were waiting for our plane to Mexico City, I bit into a hard candy and broke a tooth. It was the first molar, top right – or to borrow from the technical terminology of the dentistry profession, tooth #14.

dentistI cannot fault the hard candies of Panama, which are actually quite yummy. This dental fracture was an accident waiting to happen. The filling in this tooth was probably 40 years old, and as you will learn as you get older, nothing lasts forever. I knew I was going to need a crown for this broken tooth. I have a few of those already, so I know from experience what is involved. Armed with this knowledge I did the logical thing. I put off going to the dentist for as long as possible.

Our deadline for departure from Mexico is looming, and I know medical and dental costs are less here than in the U. S. So I finally made an appointment based on my friend Jim’s referral. The dentist (orthodontist, actually) fit me in the following morning. He looked at my tooth, cleaned it up a bit, and as cheerfully as one can deliver this message he said, “You need a root canal.” He then took an X-ray of the tooth to take to Dr. Martinez, who he assured me, was the finest dentist in town when it comes to root canals. Dr. Martinez scheduled me for two days later.

Maybe I should have brushed more with Ipana when I was a kid.

Maybe I should have brushed more with Ipana when I was a kid.

I had never had a root canal before. Call me a wimp if you must, but based on all the root canal stories I have heard, I was seriously averse to this dentist visit. But I went anyway. Just like with any dental work she first numbed my mouth. Ha – I did not feel a thing! She was good with the needle, but how about with the drill? All I can say is the orthodontist was right. Dr. Martinez was the best. I caught a glimpse of her dental school diploma on the way out. She graduated from dental school in 1988 – twenty-five years ago. She did not look old enough to have twenty-five years experience, but she certainly performed like a seasoned professional! I was impressed.

Dental expenses in Mexico

The consultation with the orthodontist including the X-ray: 400 pesos ($33)
Root canal and filling on my broken tooth: 3,200 pesos ($264)

I looked up the cost for a root canal in the U. S. Figures range from $700 to over $1,000. Many insurance programs cover only 50% of a root canal, so I think I did pretty well. We will see what the crown ends up costing.

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Top 10 Things I Love About Mexico

Art and culture are on display everywhere in Mexico.

Art and culture are on display everywhere in Mexico.

Our stay in Mexico is approaching the end, and it is appropriate to reflect on our experiences. We still have another month and a half before our final departure. However, I will be on assignment in the U.S. for four weeks. So before our stay draws to a close I want to share my Top 10 list for Mexico:

Ancient civilizations left their mark.

Ancient civilizations left their mark.

1. Restaurant Food – There are fabulous restaurants in Mexico. Our host, Jim Horn, has introduced us to the finest eateries in Cuernavaca.
2. Fresh Fruit – The variety and abundance of fresh fruit is the best in the Western Hemisphere. Everything grows here.
3. Hospitality – The people are friendly and helpful. They want visitors to feel welcome, and we do!
4. Health Care – On the few occasions when we needed care, we found world class health care at reasonable prices on our “pay-as-you-go” plan.
5. Climate – While it was snowing in places in the U.S., I was getting a tan. Enough said.
6. Cheese – Before arriving in Mexico, I was craving good cheese. We found great cheeses in Mexico!
7. History – The remains of civilization in Mexico rivals the relics of the Old World dating back thousands of years.
8. Butterflies and Hummingbirds – We have never seen so many of these beautiful creatures in one place.
9. Diversity of Culture – Movies, art, theater, music, indigenous culture, it is all here.
10. Infrastructure for Tourism – There is an excellent transportation system and the roads are well maintained.

Honorable Mention

Artisans and food vendors abound.

Artisans and food vendors abound.

Safety – The bad rap Mexico gets in the American media is simply unfair. We have felt as secure in Mexico as anyplace we have been in the U.S. or any other country we have visited.
Tranquility – Our recent visit to the town square on a Sunday was typical. Families were out with their children. Young people strolled while holding hands. Elderly folks sat with friends in sidewalk cafes sipping coffee.
Shopping – We frequently stroll among shops and stalls to see what is for sale. Most recently we bought a brightly painted ceramic crucifix for 40 pesos ($3.40) and a nicely crafted carry-on backpack for 180 pesos ($16.50).

Did we miss anything?

Birds and butterflies visit me often in my "office."

Birds and butterflies visit me often in my “office.”

Mexico is a big country, and we missed seeing a lot of it. Neither of us are what you would call “beach people,” so we did not visit the coast. Nor did we make it to Puebla, Yucatan or the lush southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. There is simply too much of Mexico to take in over a short span of time. Some might say, “But you had six months! That is plenty of time to see so much of Mexico.” That may seem true. However, we are not on vacation. Vacation living is often expensive and exhausting.

Mexico is a big and scenic country.

Mexico is a big and scenic country.

We adopted our Six Monther lifestyle to take life at a normal pace. We attended some expat meetings. We saw a couple of first-run movies. We found local shops for food and services. We adopted exercise routines. We even published a book. In order to take in more of the things worth seeing, we will need to return someday and perhaps we will. However, there is much of the world yet to see.

Our home for the second half of 2013 will be Scotland. Have you visited Scotland? What do you think is a must-see destination?

living in Mexico

A Day in Tepoztlán

Mt. Tepozteco overlooks the main street in Tepoztlán.

Mt. Tepozteco overlooks the main street in Tepoztlán.

The quaint town of Tepoztlán (place of abundant copper in the indigenous Nahuatl language) has grown rapidly to over 40,000 inhabitants in recent years.  Some of the growth can be attributed to the Pueblo Mágico (magical town) designation bestowed by the Mexican Secretariat of Tourism.  This award recognizes selected towns for their scenic beauty, cultural heritage, and/or their historical significance.

Bananas, mangos, strawberries, guayaba, they have it all.

Bananas, mangos, strawberries, guayaba, pineapple, melons, even Washington apples, they have it all.

Tepoztlán comes to life on Market Days, every Wednesday and Sunday. That is when food vendors, craft persons and local farmers set up awnings around the main square of town.  People come from Mexico City and surrounding towns to enjoy the live music, shop for fresh produce, dine, and perhaps seek out their favorite flavor of ice cream for which the town is famous.

Our first visit to Tepoztlán was on a Sunday.  We chose a nearby restaurant for lunch before purchasing several grocery bags filled with fresh fruits and vegetables including pineapple, strawberries, bananas, mangos, mandarin oranges, tomatoes and avocados, all for about $15.  We would have looked into the 16th century Dominican cathedral, The Parish of the Nativity, except that Sunday mass was just getting out, and the area in and around the cathedral was quite crowded.

The mosaic mural is coated with varnish so the birds won't eat the seeds.

The mosaic mural is coated with varnish so the birds won’t eat the seeds.

Our return visit to Tepoztlán on a Wednesday a few weeks later allowed us time to visit the cathedral.  Access to the cathedral grounds from the marketplace is through an arched gate.  The face of this portal is exquisitely decorated with a mosaic scene portraying in fine detail the agricultural imagery of the region.  The whole scene is portrayed solely with the use of seeds, beans, and organic materials.  Even though the image is preserved by a thick layer of varnish, we learned the entire mosaic is redesigned and redone from scratch every year.

The Dominican cathedral is even more dramatic inside.

The Dominican cathedral is even more dramatic inside.

The cathedral itself is a tribute to the ingenuity of the artisans of the 1500’s who carved the intricate stonework on the façade. The local history is also superbly displayed and described at the adjacent former convent, now a museum.  We were as impressed with the stunning architectural detail of the building as we were with the museum’s exhibits.

For the more adventurous visitor, an invigorating hike up the neighboring peak of Tepozteco offers spectacular vistas of the town, the surrounding hills and the distant central valley of Morelos.  To this day there are remains of an Aztec era temple high on the cliffs of Tepozteco, probably a site for priests of an earlier era. Whether you like to shop or if you simply prefer a beautiful drive in the country, Tepoztlán is worth a visit.

living in Mexico

What’s Wrong With Boquete?

Boquete is known for its lush and beautiful gardens.

Boquete is known for its lush and beautiful gardens.

My wife and I have enjoyed our six months in Boquete. We have lived inexpensively allowing us to travel out of the country three times and take two trips in-country. Boquete is a lush, beautiful garden spot. Tourists have discovered it and flock here. Panamanians from the big city also visit Boquete, and many of the more prosperous families have lovely vacation homes here. Which leads to the question we have been asked many times: “If living in Boquete is so nice, why are you leaving?”

In the middle of planning to bring friends to the area we had a business issue with a Panamanian colleague. It could have been resolved with a simple apology for an abusive verbal exchange with my wife, but that did not happen. One of the basic rules of a happy existence is simply this: don’t piss off the Italian woman. Since this colleague was also our landlord, we no longer felt welcome, so we planned our departure.

Boquete's Central Park is a great meeting spot.

Boquete’s Central Park is a great meeting spot.

We could have made other living arrangements. There is no shortage of rental property in Boquete, which leads me back to the original question, what’s wrong with Boquete? Why wouldn’t we stay? (This is the part the over-eager real estate people will not tell you.)

1. This is no place for children. There are no playgrounds, no theaters, and no safe place to ride a bicycle.
2. Shopping is limited to the supermarket, the hardware store, and a small department store. The nearest mall is 25 miles away.
3. The Panamanian people are friendly, but they are not your friends. Even if you are fluent in Spanish, they are only interested in a relationship if there is money to be made. This is understandable when you consider the average monthly wage for a Panamanian is maybe $600.
4. All outsiders are gringos, and it is assumed gringos have lots of money even if you don’t. The gringos have driven up property values such that the locals can no longer afford to live in the town in which they grew up. There is some resentment about that, although Panamanians are generally tolerant by nature.
5. The weather is temperate year-round. What you are not told is that the area also gets over 100 inches of rain per year, and during the dry season the winds are nearly constant.
6. The humidity is high, which means mold and mildew are common. There is lots of pollen from the lush vegetation. Anyone with allergies could suffer in this environment.
7. There is crime in Panama. Almost every house in Panama has a high fence around it and iron bars on the doors and windows. Whenever you have a privileged class of people living in close proximity to a much poorer population, crimes of opportunity are not uncommon. Violent crimes are much less common, but not unheard of.
8. Power outages occur on a regular basis. Fortunately, they seldom last more than 30 minutes, but it does make you wonder who is playing with the switches.

The village of Boquete is nestled in a beautiful subalpine rainforest.

The village of Boquete is nestled in a beautiful subalpine rainforest.

I am not bitter about my experience here. There is much to like about Panama, and I am by no means seeking to turn people away. By the same token, I am sharing honest impressions without much sugar-coating. If you find any of this information is helpful, that is good. If you wish to share your own insights and experiences, I welcome your comments. I will be writing from a new venue next week. Adios from Panama.

living in Panama

Breakfast at Olga’s

Looking toward the entrance, we had Olga’s Restaurant all to ourselves on this morning. The area in back opens onto a lovely garden. There was a refreshing morning breeze to create the perfect atmosphere.

As a newcomer to Panama, I now feel like I have experienced an essential rite of passage, having eaten breakfast at Olga’s Restaurant. I had read extensively through the blogs and restaurant reviews, and I came to realize that, not only is Olga’s the best breakfast in town, but also you simply aren’t properly initiated in the community until you have experienced desayuno a la restaurante Punto de Encuentro, breakfast at the Point of Contact Restaurant, or simply Olga’s.

I reluctantly admit I could not find Olga’s on my first search through Boquete while walking from the one end of town to the other. Later that day, when I inquired of a friend as to the address of Olga’s, the response, appropriately enough was, “What’s an address?” Conceding the point, I asked for a landmark. I had gathered from my research that Olga’s was somewhere across from the Delta gas station on Boquete’s main street. However, the directions written online were little better than trying to find the Pacific Ocean from California – “Keep going thataway.” Once I was told it was directly behind the Dollar Store, it was hard to miss.

It was a Tuesday morning, so all the regulars were at the weekly open market from which we had just come, and my wife and I had the restaurant all to ourselves. My wife had the pancakes and I ordered eggs and

The best orange juice I ever had

potatoes, all in Spanish I am pleased to say. I was coffee’d out, so I ordered orange juice. We waited while I contemplated fried eggs in Panama.

First, most non-Americans don’t eat eggs for breakfast. Yogurt, cheese, cold cuts, and cereal, yes. But eggs – not so much. Second, it’s not a simple thing to order fried eggs because ‘over easy’ doesn’t translate well. Fortunately, Olga knows what that means because 4 out of 5 men prefer eggs over easy, and the waves of gringos who have preceded me have worked out with Olga what fried eggs look like, thank goodness!

Two light and fluffy pancakes make a whole stack. I knew my wife couldn’t eat them all, so I got a taste. Mmmm!

Then breakfast came to our table, elegantly served with placemats, toast with butter and jam, ketchup for the potatoes (without having to ask), and syrup for the pancakes in a small heated ceramic pitcher. The OJ had to be freshly squeezed because it just doesn’t get any better than what I was served. The pancakes were so light and fluffy that my wife had to put butter and syrup on them to keep them from floating away. And my eggs? Perfecto!! The total cost was $11 for both of us including a tip.

Fried eggs and potatoes cooked just right

As we were leaving I inquired, “Que es su horario, sus horas de abierto?” (What are your scheduled hours that you are open?) To which Olga replied in perfect English, “We’re open from 7 – 12 every day.” Since her English was far superior to my Spanish, I just want to say, “Thank you, Olga, for accepting my gringo Spanish without laughing, and also for a fantastic breakfast!”

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